A study was conducted at sites in subtropical Georgia, seasonal and humid Iowa, and arid southeastern California to evaluate the field hydrology of compacted clay covers for final closure of landfills. Water balance of the covers was monitored with large (10 by 20 m), instrumented drainage lysimeters for 2 to 4 yr. Initial drainage at the Iowa and California sites was <32 mm yr−1 (i.e., unit gradient flow for a hydraulic conductivity of 10−7 cm s−1, the regulatory standard for the clay barriers in this study); initial drainage rate at the Georgia site was about 80 mm yr−1. The drainage rate at all sites increased by factors ranging from 100 to 750 during the monitoring periods and in each case the drainage rate exceeded 32 mm yr−1 by the end of the monitoring period. The drainage rates developed a rapid response to precipitation events, suggesting that increases in drainage rate were the result of preferential flow. Although no direct observations of preferential flow paths were made, field measurements of water content and temperature at all three sites suggested that desiccation or freeze–thaw cycling probably resulted in formation of preferential flow paths through the barrier layers. Data from all three sites showed the effectiveness of all three covers as hydraulic barriers diminished during the 2 to 4 yr monitoring period, which was short compared with the required design life (often 30 yr) of most waste containment facilities.